Earth Jurisprudence

by Laurie Sheldon

Sister Pat Siemen was driving through North Carolina when she popped a Thomas Berry audio book into the cassette deck of her car. The Dominican Sister and attorney was already an advocate of voting rights for the underrepresented and voiceless, so it’s no wonder that a huge lightbulb flashed over her head when the narrator read, "I suspect that if we had an earth governance and every species got to vote, they would vote humans off the planet." Her perception of the rights of nature within the context of the law changed forever on that day - a fact we should all be grateful for. Sister Pat went on to apply her Juris Doctor in the classroom, encouraging Earth literacy as the director of the Earth Ethics Institute at Miami Dade College. She currently heads the Center for Earth Jurisprudence at Barry University's School of Law.
Sister Pat Siemen

As a speaker at the 2013 F.N.P.S. Conference in May, her presentation began with an introduction to Earth Jurisprudence (juris = law; prudence = wisdom), a field of law that recognizes nature’s inherent right to exist, flourish and evolve. Unlike the totem pole model of life on Earth that humans seem to have embraced (wherein bryophytes and microorganisms are the “low men” and people are the cherry on top), Earth Law suggests a model that looks much more like a pizza with tons of different toppings. The premise is that no one presence on Earth - biotic or abiotic - is more important than any other presence. The anthropocentric hierarchy is superseded by an interdependent community in which humans relinquish their desire-driven consumption of resources and shift toward a need-focused, sustainable reality in which they are conscious and respectful of nature’s rights, capacities and requirements.
Shifting away from the pyramidal hierarchy

Siemen outlined several “core elements” of Earth Jurisprudence (E.J.), beginning with Respect for Bioregionalism. This is a fancy, hyper-compact way of suggesting for us to be mindful of the unique components of any place, including native flora and fauna, watersheds and recharge areas, geology, weather patterns, et cetera.

The second tenet of E.J. is Ecological Governance. This addresses the sad truth that the environmental consequences of our actions are frequently an afterthought. Ecological Governance dictates that, just as our lives are embedded within our environments, so should our environments be embedded within our lives and factored into every decision we make, regardless of scale. Nature and its laws are ubiquitous, foundational, and, to state the obvious, they were here way before we existed or even thought of standing upright, let alone set about codifying a system of rules to live by.

The third E.J. principle was introduced in 1992 at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio. Called the “Precautionary Principle” or “Duty of Care,” it states that:
In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.
In layman’s terms, this equates to “first do no harm.”

The fourth and final E.J. concept that Sister Pat presented was Ecological Constraint. This is about living with our means - and nature’s means as well. For centuries, we behaved as though we had access to a never-ending pool of natural resources. Although we’ve since accepted that there is an undeniable limit to what we can take from nature without degrading it, the learning curve was shamefully steep. We cannot behave as parasites among mutually beneficial organisms.

What does this have to do with you, and why am I bringing it up? Exactly! It’s not all about YOU. Get over yourself, start thinking of the BIG picture, and re-establish your relationship with the life-giving force called Nature. The roots you lay down are in Nature’s soil. She has your back. Do you have hers?

On a relevant note…

I recently received an email from Karina Veaudry, a Landscape Architect, former Executive Director of F.N.P.S., and current Chair of the F.N.P.S. Landscape Committee. She attached the following letter from Richard Gilbert, another advocate of Earth Jurisprudence (whether or not he knows to call it that). My initial thought was, “Geez - it’s very long… If I share it, I’ll have to pare it down.” After having one of my blogs printed in a Jacksonville magazine as a chopped up version of its former self, I decided against editing. Consider it my “walk-the-walk” effort to “do unto others…”  Besides, it's beautifully written, and well worth the time you'll invest.

Does the Earth Have Moral Rights?
by Richard S. Gilbert (1)

Chautauqua – June 30, 2013
We stood on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon one hot July day several years ago as the Park Ranger described the geological eons which produced one of the natural wonders of the world. At the end of her lecture, however, she departed from her well-honed script to express concern about the commercialization of the South Rim, speculating, apparently in jest, on proposals for glass elevators moving up and down the canyon wall. Our very pleasant young guide was no longer merely a Park Ranger; she was a fierce defender of an environment she had come to cherish, lobbying us to lobby our representatives to keep this place forever wild.

Last summer I sat in the Amphitheater here at Chautauqua listening to National Geographic staffers discuss water as a precious and precarious resource.  The highlight was marine biologist Sylvia Earle, live-streamed from her research vessel 60 feet below the ocean surface off the Florida coast. She warned us about what we were doing to the oceans upon which all life depends. “We can’t claim ignorance,” she said. “We have thought the earth ‘too big to fail,’ but that is not true.” We are in danger, but she encouraged us by saying we have hit a “sweet spot” where we can still change our behavior and save our planetary home. “How lucky we are. This is an opportunity that may never come again.” (2)

Later last summer as I was in our Seneca lake cottage preparing homilies for the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, I noticed a distant rumble of thunder. No sooner had I unplugged my computer (first priority) and battened the hatches (second priority) than the storm enveloped me. The wind picked up very quickly – reaching 90 miles per hour. First the rain came; then hail hit my windows so ferociously I could not see anything outside. I retreated to what I hoped was a safe place and awaited my fate. There was a great snapping and I felt the ground shake. Result: One microburst, one anxious minister and three downed trees – another example of extreme weather which many scientists link to global climate change.

Then just last week at our Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Louisville, Kentucky, I listed as poet and environmentalist Wendell Berry (3) warned us in his laconic way that “We are using up the world.” His cry was not so much for more efficient and sustainable energy, but, as he put it simply, “less energy.”

These vignettes about our environment remind me of a book my older son used in a college ecology course: Do Trees Have Standing?  by Christopher Stone, a University of Southern California law professor. In 1969 the Sierra Club took Walt Disney Productions to court over its intended $35 million commercial development of Mineral King Valley, a wilderness area in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The judge dismissed the case because the Sierra Club lacked legal "standing" – none of its members would be directly or adversely affected. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Stone hastily wrote a bold manuscript claiming that natural objects like trees ought to have some kind of legal standing — after all, their very existence was jeopardized. Stone worked with an editor friend who slipped the essay into a law review issue on the environment for which then Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was to write an introductory essay. This outdoors enthusiast would have to read the essay before he penned the preface. The Sierra Club lost the case, but in his dissenting opinion Douglas made reference to Stone's essay, entering into legal discourse the idea that natural objects have legal standing.

Subsequently I read of an anti-sewage sludge ordinance in Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania, which included a provision recognizing the rights of nature, apparently the first law of its kind in the world. This inspired other communities to pass legislation giving legal rights to ecosystems. Even the United Nations is considering a proposal to adopt a “Charter on the Rights of Mother Nature.”(4)  After all, if corporations have the legal rights of persons, what about nature itself?

I take the issue one step further – from legality to morality – does the earth have moral rights? – a question that empties the room.

As a Boy Scout I was taught to leave my campsite in as good or better condition than I found it. All my trash was to be properly disposed of. The campfire should be safely extinguished. Kindling wood should be left for the next camper. Does this same ethic apply to human beings inhabiting planet earth? Are we morally responsible for the campsite on which we spend our short years of life?

This is not an idle question. It is an issue increasingly raised as industrial development clashes head-on with environmental limits. These are not inconsequential issues.

Time magazine once named "endangered earth" the "planet of the year," and called for a "a universal crusade to save the planet." In New York State we have the titanic struggle over hydrofracking.  We anxiously await the decision of the Department of Environmental Protection whether and where and how this environmentally questionable drilling for natural gas will occur.

Ecologist Sandra Steingraber went so far as to engage in civil disobedience. She protested the proposal of the energy company to compress, liquefy and store fracked gases from out of state in depleted salt caverns under Seneca Lake, the largest and deepest of the Finger Lakes where I spend much of my summer. Seneca provides drinking water for 100,000 people. She was convicted of trespassing and blockading a compressor station site belonging to Inergy. Some have their “bucket lists.” In her “Letter from Chemung County Jail,” she wrote about other environments passionate for human rights: “They, like I, probably also keep a list labeled, ‘Things to do before going to jail.’”

Some of us have advocated an outright ban. We protest the Canadian Tar Sands proposal which President Obama is considering. Protecting the environment is no longer the purview of romantic activists; it is the very stuff of human survival.

As residents of one earth, "we all live downstream." Religiously speaking, our parish is this planet. I am especially concerned about the theological attitude that informs the debate. It is taken for granted that the issues must be decided in terms of their impact on human beings. "What's in it for us?"

The Wall Street Journal once caricatured a business executive reading an environmental impact study handed him by an aide. Banging his fist on the desk he shouted:  "Now they say we can't dump our industrial wastes in the river anymore! What's a river for?"

Indeed, what is a river for? Our implicit theology suggests the earth is here solely for our benefit, that cosmic creation and earthly evolution have been engaged in a great and happy conspiracy to satisfy our every whim and want. The earth is nothing but a mine for our profligacy and a sewer for our waste.

There is an arrogance here that is disturbing. Greek, Hebrew and Christian traditions have all warned us against hubris – the sin of pride. Having arrived at what appears to be the culmination of the evolutionary process, we believe that we are what it was striving for all this long time.

That is a tempting view, but is it true? We may have but a fleeting supremacy in the cosmic scheme of things. We may be but a passing fancy in the cosmic eye. Who knows? Who can know?

I only know that this human self-assurance has led us to an incredible profligacy – a consumption binge unheard of in human history – a binge that affects our wasteful way of looking at the world – a binge that threatens our very survival as a species.

We are reminded of this in the wake of a record-shattering, oppressively hot, dry year, the hottest on record. Creation groaned. The earth speaks back. We may overheat the globe to extinction.

Our typical – and very tempting – response is to sweat, sigh, turn on our air conditioners and forget the whole thing. That response denies the inconvenient truth that human activity exacerbates global warming and in time will produce disastrous consequences.

Our arrogance reflects another of the seven deadly sins, a gluttony which threatens to leave our descendents a tragic legacy. It is they who must clean up our nuclear waste — look at the tragedy of Fukushima. It is our descendents who must find natural resources to replace those we deplete. It is they who must provide water in areas already desperately dry. It is they who will need to cope with an overpopulated globe. As one wit said: "We are living beyond our means and the Earth Bank is not federally insured." A young farmer asked an agronomist: "What is the best method of crop rotation?" The scientist replied: "10 years of white man and 100 years of Indian."

Poet Chad Walsh put our predicament succinctly:

"We'll go no more to the woods.
The laurels all are cut.
We'll count our national goods
And carpet our private rut."

There is a story that contrasts our Western attitude toward nature with that of the East. When Mt. Everest was climbed for the first time, a newspaper headlined: "Hillary Conquers Everest." "What an odd verb to use," remarked an observer of Asian descent. "Everest has not been conquered, but befriended."

Does the Grand Canyon, this natural massive sculpture in the earth's crust, have a right to be that transcends my right to have it the way I want it? Do its trees have rights? And the Colorado River itself? And the rocks that rim it? And what about oceans and plains and valleys and mountains? Do dolphins have rights? And whales? Do these natural objects – do these creatures have a moral right to be – apart from how they serve us? And can we be indifferent to a profligate life style that is ruinous for the very planet on which we depend for life itself?

It all depends on your theology. I am no supernaturalist. The idea of God above and beyond the natural world does not appeal to my sense of reason or aesthetics. I am not a theist – no Cosmic Personality whispers in my ear. I am perhaps a "born-again pantheist" – there is something of the divine in all things – this "interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." I am a believer in what is called "deep ecology." I love this planet.
Man did not weave the web of life;
he is merely a strand in it
-Chief Seattle

As William Blake wrote:
"To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour."

Although I am a creature of the 21st century, a pragmatist, rationally-minded and emotionally reserved – I am a mystic at heart. There is something holy about the earth that I cherish. Creation is not of our doing. Life is a gift beyond our comprehension or deserving. We are compelled to humility.

This earth I stride is part of the cosmic divinity in which I live. This globe on which I reside is holy to its very core. These animals with which I share the air and water and space do delight me, yet they are not here just for my pleasure. They are something of value in and of themselves.

This land and these rolling hills which surround us are holy ground; these quiet places of earth are sacred groves, not only for my spirit, but themselves as worthy of worship. This air I breathe is sacred stuff, and I seek to keep it clean not only for my sake, but for the pureness of its own being. I am a mystic and I make no apologies. This Great Living System is shot through with holiness.

We are citizens of the planet who have a responsibility to save its future. That task requires the expertise of scientists who comprehend our eco-system and the compassion of religionists who experience the earth as sacred. As one of my colleagues put it:  “We live in the shade of trees we did not plant; we drink from wells we did not dig; we build on foundations we did not lay.” (5) Surely we must cherish them, not only for ourselves, but for those who follow.

It is not too late, though in one graphic image we are compelled to urgency: “If you start turning the Titanic long before you hit the iceberg, you can go clear without even spilling a drink of a passenger on deck. If you wait until you’re really close, spilling a lot of drinks is the best you can hope for.”(6) Or as once scientist said, “I feel like the time to do something was yesterday.”(7)

There is a modern parable in the story of Hiroyuki Kohno, a 44-year-old plant worker at the quake-damaged Fukushima Daichii nuclear complex in Japan. Kohno and the so-called “Fukushima Fifty” risked their lives to disable that plant with a minimum of radiation damage. “To be honest, no one wants to go,” he said….”I know that when I go this time, I will return with a body no longer capable of work at a nuclear plant.” In explaining why he risked his life for his nation, he said, “There’s a Japanese expression: ‘We eat from the same bowl.’ These are friends I shared pain and laughter with. That’s why I’m going.”  “We all eat from the same bowl.” 

That spirit was manifest in our General Assembly this year when the denomination honored Tim DeChristopher with the Holmes-Weatherly Award for Social Justice. A member of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, he is featured in a new documentary film, Bidder 70, which describes the December 2008 auction of oil and gas drilling rights on more than 150,000 acres of Utah wilderness. A fierce defender of the natural world, he crashed this sale of public lands and outbid industrial groups though he had no money – he was bluffing to save the wilderness. DeChristopher knew he risked prison, but told Bill Moyers “Could I live with that? And I thought, well, yeah. It’d suck, but I could live with it. And he did, spending almost two years in jail even though the auction was declared null and void by the Obama administration. This fall he enters Harvard to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.

Not all of us will be Sandra Steingrabers, Hiroyuki Kohnos or Tim DeChristophers in our quest to save our world. But as we walk past these towering trees, behold this sparkling lake, breathe this fresh air, let us at least wonder if we are not walking on holy ground – holy ground well worth the effort to save.

(1)  About Richard Gilbert: Brief bio.
(2)  Sylvia Earle.  Chautauqua Lecture, July 18, 2012. 
(3)  About Wendell Berry: Wikipedia, New York Times. 
(4)  Jason Mark, from Earth Island Journal. 
(5)  Peter Raible. Obituary/brief bio.
(6)  Richard B. Alley, climate scientist at Penn State, as quoted in the New York Times.
 (7)  Mark Pagani, Yale geochemist and climate historian, as quoted in the New York Times.


Anonymous said…
Laurie, thank you so much for your report on Sister Siemen's presentation on Earth Jurisprudence and the Center she founded; another of the many things I knew of, but not with specifics like these. Thanks also to both you and Karina for the inclusion of the whole article by Richard Gilbert. I wish everybody in the whole world would wake up as the sun brought morning to their part of the world today and read it. So powerful.

Your masterful presentation, as always, is enjoyable, illuminating, and appreciated!
Unknown said…
Thank YOU for recognizing the value of the message I'm trying to get across here. I think it's especially interesting that while both Sister Pat and Richard Gilbert are both figureheads in religious institutions, they seem to gravitate away from the theological and toward the naturalist/spiritual Earth mentality. Neat people to read and write about.
pfalexla said…
"As a Boy Scout I was taught to leave my campsite in as good or better condition than I found it. All my trash was to be properly disposed of. The campfire should be safely extinguished. Kindling wood should be left for the next camper. Does this same ethic apply to human beings inhabiting planet earth? Are we morally responsible for the campsite on which we spend our short years of life?"
Billions of people live the life of campers. We should concentrate on bringing to them the advances of human condition our country especially has accomplished. We should get out of the guilt bath and help others at least get showers. Human to Human trumps Human to Nature.

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